It’s No Dark Night for The Dark Knight

I saw The Dark Knight at the first IMAX midnight showing Thursday night.

In the long line of fans and fanboys, some dressed in Joker or Batman costumes, I kept thinking about the viral marketing and alternate reality game, or ARG, that has now come to an end, I assume, with the release of the movie. Depending upon who you ask, people either saw a lot of marketing for The Dark Knight or just a few commercials here and there. For those who were listening, there was plenty to hear.

I speculated awhile back that this campaign might be looking to blow the top off traditional marketing if Heath Ledger’s death turned out to be some kind of trickery. I wasn’t the only one who thought that either. Of course, faking Ledger’s death would have been an extremely controversial part of any marketing plan, but I think there would have been an insane amount of buzz surrounding the film if they had spun the gossip readers around in their chairs.

Unfortunately, Ledger’s death was not any sort of hoax, but the ARG and viral marketing done for The Dark Knight still represents some of the best outreach for the hardcore fan crowd that I have ever seen. By stringing together ARG events, several websites, outdoor signage and more traditional advertising, The Dark Knight‘s marketing gave fans just enough to stay hungry until the release of the film.

Chris Lee of the LA Times went over all the many facets of the campaign back in March. Rather than being one deep alternate reality game or one simple viral website to promote the film, The Dark Knight marketing team and 42 Entertainment provided several big reveals.

By using several websites to run numerous small ARG projects, the marketers kept fans pining for the movie’s release. I am convinced that someone involved with the marketing for The Dark Knight is an insider at GoDaddy just looking at the complete list of all the sites affiliated with the movie.

The campaigns started off pretty small. One of the most noteworthy early on was making a game out of revealing the first photo of Ledger’s Joker pixel by pixel. Fans had to translate puzzles in email messages which unlocked just a pixel of the image until the entire photo was revealed.

Staged events like the street side campaign stands for Harvey Dent seemed to almost go unnoticed, but those true fans that ran into them on the street or sought them out through got free Harvey Dent swag and a reminder of the film.

While it looked like a perfectly legitimate campaign site for the fictional Gotham District Attorney at first, was defaced — we must assume by the Joker — as the film’s release grew closer. Prior to the “vandalism,” The Community Guy praised it for staying in character.

Defaced I Believe in Harvey Dent Site

To get the full story on the Dent campaign, you should also check out Don’t ‘Select All’ in your browser, or you might discover something there as well.

The Joker set up shop at to lead a scavenger hunt at San Diego’s Comic-Con and then provide the locations of bakeries around the United States where fans could receive a cake. Each cake was packed with an evidence bag containing a cell phone, phone charger, Joker gear and instructions to keep the phone on you at all times.

A similar piece of the ARG puzzle ran through the Clown Travel Agency, leading fans on another scavenger hunt for the Joker. In the end, a select group of fans who got there first received bowling ball bags containing a Joker-themed ball and a cell phone.

With all the various online and off-line marketing projects coming together, The Dark Knight had plenty of buzz opening weekend.

Early reports from E! Online are that The Dark Knight passed up Spider-Man 3 by grossing $155.3 million in its first weekend. The movie also set the records for opening day and single day.

While people all over the world may love their Batman, the success of The Dark Knight and especially this big opening weekend is a result of their innovative and consistent marketing. Even with the death of Heath Ledger endangering the project, the studio and 42 Entertainment put together enough rabbit holes to keep fans in the Batman universe and to keep the mainstream media reporting about their movie right up until the release date.

I know the ARG definitely pushed me to go see it early. I don’t normally rush out to see a movie the first weekend it comes out, but because of all the marketing and the IMAX showings, I jumped on board to get a ticket early.

How did the ARG and viral marketing influence you? Did you rush out to see the movie this weekend, or do you have no interest in it? Have you even ever heard of Batman? Continue the discussion by dropping a comment below.

Why I thought Heath Ledger wasn’t really dead: viral marketing theories and epiphanies

When I heard the news that Heath Ledger was found dead yesterday, I couldn’t help being a little skeptical. Not to be disrespectful of the dead, but I thought in the first minutes of the reports that it might all be a clever ruse by a very risky marketing team.

Let me take you back in my experience leading up to his death.

I had been researching the viral marketing campaign for The Dark Knight in preparation of doing a post about the numerous things they were doing right to get fans involved. Not having even participated in any of the ARG–or alternate reality game–action, I was still excited to read about all of the various games put together for fans of the movie.

The campaign is being done by famed 42 Entertainment, known for the Halo 2 ARG ILoveBees. It has created a deep reality spanning both the Web and real world for the fans. You can read all about the various elements of the viral marketing efforts in the “Marketing” section of the Wikipedia entry for The Dark Knight.

Recently, clues from the viral marketing campaign led fans to various bakeries in cities around the country where they received cakes containing hidden evidence bags with a real cell phone inside. After following the given instructions and calling a phone number from the cake, fans were left waiting for the Joker to call.

The second factor in my skepticism came from a podcast by Revision3 called The Totally Rad Show. In a recent episode, co-host Alex Albrecht mentioned how he felt Christopher Nolan was really taking up the idea that the Joker was “undead” since he is killed before coming back to life as one of Batman’s greatest villains. Many reports online were citing the many surprises awaiting moviegoers in Nolan’s imagining of the Joker.

Now that we are up to speed, enter the news of Heath Ledger dying just weeks later. The idea crept into my head that this news might be part of the campaign as well.

Obviously, this theory was blown out of the water after numerous official, confirmed reports of Ledger’s body being found and the reactions of his family. For those few minutes before more information was known, I theorized that 42 Entertainment might have blown the ARG open.

Can you imagine how insane that level of depth and immersion would have been? People were rushing to to see the breaking news headline that Heath Ledger was found unresponsive and possibly dead. In that moment, what if, as the Joker himself says, “It’s all part of the plan.”

Of course, they would have had to retract the staged death quickly and made sure that the correct information was known. It would have been controversial.

If Ledger had prepped his family and close friends for the news and the ARG team was ready to go with the next stage–a Joker call from the beyond perhaps–that would have been an epic ARG event. If they had staged the faking of his death in a few months, just before the movie’s release, the stunt might have made a huge impact with fans and the mainstream public as well without breaking fans out of the ARG state of mind.

Despite how impossible it seems, part of me almost wishes that this theory was the truth. We wouldn’t have lost a talented actor so young in his career, and the move would have completely blown any ARG to date out of the water by bringing participants down to reality with the idea of death before pulling them deeper back to the game with the reveal.

What a great way to re-introduce the character of the Joker for longtime fans looking for new life in the Batman saga. It would have been interesting.